Review – Symphonic Strings Evolutions from Spitfire Audio
Here is another one-of-a-kind string library from Spitfire. Can you say “underscore”? If you don’t know what that even means, then please read on.
by Dave Townsend, Nov. 2017
Next time you’re watching a TV drama, try focusing on the audio. Not the dialog, the soundtrack or the intro theme. Ignore the nostalgic 80’s pop songs and incidental music. Rather, listen for those quiet bits that fill in the gaps when there’s no dialog or cars crashing.
I’m talking about the near-subliminal atmospheric textures, drones and pads that surreptitiously set the mood for a scene. When they’re well done, most viewers aren’t consciously aware that they’re even there.
Unless, of course, you’re one of the people whose job it is to create those effects, in which case you’ve probably already purchased the subject of this review on the day it was released. This article is for the rest of us, those who’ve been happily oblivious to this trick of the trade. But be forewarned: once you start listening for them, it’ll be hard not to hear them every time you watch a show.
This piece of the audio mosaic for film and television is referred to as an “underscore”. Its purpose is to subtly set a mood without drawing attention to itself. Sometimes it’s melodic, sometimes it’s an amorphous drone. But its purpose is always the same: to enhance the visuals by manipulating the viewer’s subconscious into evoking an emotional response that fits the scene.
The folks at Spitfire are masters of creative orchestral sampling, and in fact started their company as a result of working in sound design for film. Recently, they gave us the unique – and a little bizarre – London Contemporary Orchestra I reviewed here, a collection of indescribable orchestral articulations for film and TV. LCO is often used to create “stingers”. Stingers are close cousins to the underscore, insofar as they support visual action, either as audio exclamation points or as segues between scenes. It makes sense that Spitfire’s follow-up would be a tool for underscores. (We’ll also be examining their next installment, Swarms, in the January issue of SoundBytes.)
As a thought exercise, listen to the following example while painting an accompanying visual in your mind:
Did your imagined scene have building tension? That’s because you’ve been conditioned by a thousand movies to associate such accompaniment with tension. At the beginning, there are some ominous but conventional basses and cellos that could have been created with any string library. But listen closely to the second part, because although it’s subtle there is actually a lot going on in there: the strings start out plain but gradually de-tune as some of them rise in pitch. That modulation is picked up by our lizard brains as something being not-quite-right, and tension ensues.
Here’s a bit less-subtle example of a conventional string sound that slowly devolves into increasing chaos:
Symphony Strings Evolutions (SSE) is described by Spitfire as a tool for creating “music that sits easily under dialogue without diverting attention away from the scene”. It claims to allow you to “create and perform engaging, sophisticated and emotional music from the most simplistic of arrangements.”
In other words, a cheat sheet for quickly composing underscores.
So What Is It, Exactly?
It’s a 60-piece string orchestra (16 1st violins, 14 2nd violins, 12 violas, 10 celli and 8 basses), beautifully recorded at Air Studios in London, where up to 60 players work in unison to create atmospheric textures that sound like you put a lot more work into it than you really did.
The “evolutions” part of the name refers to evolving pads – Spitfire calls them “evos” for short – that slowly morph notes and articulations to create constant movement. All you have to do is hold down a note or a chord, and the virtual orchestra will turn it into something interesting and ever-changing. Some evos evoke tension, while others induce a sense of melancholy or expectation.
Here’s a more literal way to imagine it … picture 60 string players, all playing the same note. Now instruct them to shift bow articulations, vibrato and pitch bends while playing that one note. Because all 60 players repeat the process for every note, if you hold down three notes what you hear is up to 180 stringed instruments, perhaps all doing different things but orbiting around the notes you played.
Here’s an example of what one soloed evo sounds like on its own. And yes, these are real string instruments, not a synthesizer and not processed in any way:
SSE comes with 48 such evos. They can be used individually by loading up one of 48 corresponding .NKI instrument definition files. This is probably the quickest way to get your feet wet, by listening to each evo in turn, to get a sense of its mood. Some have helpful descriptive names such as “Vibrato Movement”. Others have more intriguing names, such as “Trem to Shudders to Pont Attacks with Cross Strings”. Those you just have to hear.
Each one stands on its own as a lush, interesting pad, but if you really want to mix things up you’ll want to layer them. The EVO Grid makes this easy to do. But we’re not talking about straight-up layering that you could do with any sample player. The grid is designed to encourage you to weave evolutions in and out based on dynamics and/or keypresses, for some extremely complex movement. It’s that constantly-shifting quality that assures the pad will remain just at the edge of your perceptive periphery, setting a mood but not distracting you from the visuals it’s supporting.
The EVO Grid
The EVO Grid isn’t a new invention specifically for SSE. (The layout was actually based on a vintage synthesizer, the EMS VCS3 most famous for Pink Floyd’s “On the Run”.) The grid made its first appearance in 2015 with a product named “EVO Grid 1 – Scary Strings”. That was also the first use of the term “evo”.
The grid has since become the basis for several other Spitfire products that similarly create evolving pads and effects, culminating in this latest offering. So if you already have one of the EVO Grid series instruments, you can skip this part because, well, it’s just like those. Even if you haven’t seen the EVO Grid before, it needs only a little explanation.
The grid is a virtual patch bay that lets you graphically connect any of the 48 evos to one of 12 note regions on the keyboard.
The numbers 1 through 48 across the top represent each of the 48 available evos. (Yes, there are 48 of them, even though you can only see sixteen in this screenshot – they just don’t all fit in the display, hence the scroll bar at the bottom.)
Down the left side are note names. What you’re doing is mapping a note name to an evo. But notice that every note isn’t shown there. That’s because these note names represent the center of a cluster of seven notes. So you’re not actually connecting each note to an evo, but rather each cluster of notes to an evo.
That may seem a bit confusing at first. How do you get something musical by programming a different sound to each note in a chord? Well, remember, “musical” in the traditional sense isn’t necessarily our aim with this instrument. We’re after moods, not melodies. (Although pleasant melodies are certainly possible as well; several of the evos are gorgeous-sounding conventional string tuttis).
As you might imagine, mixing up all these evos can result in some pretty scary chaos. But not necessarily. Evos are organized by mood, so if you use a combination of conventional string sounds (the lower-numbered evos), you’ll get a beautiful conventional string section. Because each evo’s volume can be independently set, you can achieve very nice subtle overtones on top of classic string sounds by mixing in the more radical evos beneath the conventional ones.
Of course, if you instead select a bunch of the more extreme-sounding evos, you can quickly find yourself in horror movie territory.
Here’s what it looks like when you simply split the keyboard between two evos:
And here’s what that split sounds like. I’ve played a chord in the left half, which is tied to a conventional string sound with light vibrato, and then added in some notes from the right half, whose evo morphs from a straight string sound into a vigorous fast-bowing.
The grid also has a randomize function, which can be a fun way to quickly come up with unexpected combinations. Click on the die icon to randomize the grid. This pops up a menu where you can restrict the randomization to a particular mood category or column if you like.
The keyboard is color-coded to indicate each evo grouping’s type. This can be helpful, especially after randomizing, because it lets you see which type of evo you’re playing as you press a key.
Red keys are “extreme” evos; blue keys are conventional instrument sounds, and yellow ones are “episodic” (rhythmic). These correspond to background color shadings on the grid itself, although those colors aren’t as easy to make out as the keyboard colorations.
Microphones, FX and Controllers
The orchestra was recorded (to tape) with either three or four pairs of very high-end (of course!) microphones, all neatly in phase so you can blend these any way you like via the mixer. They were recorded in the same room as Spitfire Symphonic Strings, so they sit well with that library.
Just a couple of notes on the mixer that aren’t immediately obvious:
Mic names are abbreviated: C = Close, T = Decca Tree, A = ambient (high and far), O = outriggers. On individual evo instruments, they’re designated B (broad), M (medium) and F (fine). “Broad” gives the most room sound, “Fine” is closer.
The unlabeled buttons above these abbreviations are for purging samples when you decide to not use a previous microphone layer. When they are lit, that means the sample set is currently loaded into memory.
This panel is rounded out with a pair of sliders labeled “Dynamics” and “Expression” (which scale velocity and CC11, respectively), ADSR amplitude envelope controls, and three pretty standard effects: reverb, delay and tape saturation.
OK, I admit this library isn’t for everybody. But don’t think that because its inspiration is amorphous underscores that that’s all you can do with it. Anyone who’s on the hunt for something different to add interest to ambient music will find a place for SSE. My own personal style is classic rock, about as far from such genres as you can get – but even I have found novel uses for this instrument. (Hint: think about those places where you can’t make up your mind if you want strings or a synth, and quiet intros and interludes.)
It’s a lightweight library, considering that it represents a 60-piece ensemble. It will take up 36.6 GB on your disk, but typically only 50 MB or so in RAM during use and far less for individual evos, so there’s no problem loading up as many instances as you like. The download is 27.7 GB, and if you’re downloading to the same drive as it’ll be installed on, you’ll need 55.4 GB free in total before you get started.
Symphonic Strings Evolution requires full Kontakt 5.6.8 or higher and is only available as a download and only from Spitfire. It goes for $299 USD. Yes, I know, that’s more than a few triple-shot lattes. But come on, it’s Spitfire. The good stuff.